Before we all took for granted that directors are the authors of their films, that we could identify unifying themes and aesthetics throughout an auteur’s canon, one of the more popular means of grouping films was by studio: Warner Brothers was known for social realism, RKO for its Art Deco designs, MGM for the glamorous. We still find an example of this today: Pixar, the animation studio with the rocky distribution partnership with Disney. While its products are often exceptionally written, animated and voiced, the underlying subtext throughout so much of its output sends a troubling message, particularly to the children to whom it specifically markets its stuff, that if you’re not born great, give up and get out of the way.
Pixar maybe has cause to embrace such a philosophy: from 1995 to 2004, Toy Story through The Incredibles, the studio had an uninterrupted string of six critical and commercial successes; it seemed impervious to failure until Cars, which, while a financial blockbuster, was simple and sloggy where the others had been smart and snappy. Since, the studio has produced a few more lackluster-yet-moneymaking titles: Cars 2, Brave (which robbed the Oscar from Wreck-It Ralph!) and its latest, Monsters University, released on DVD about a month ago. (Spoilers follow throughout.) Though there are measures of success behind the monetary, the exceptionalist espousing has continued.
It first appears—and most baldly—in The Incredibles, which several critics identified as Nietzschean if not Randian. Like Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, its characters’ innate greatnesses are stifled by those around them. The boy Dash, born with superhuman speed, isn’t allowed to compete on his school’s track team to the frustration of his father. (He wants to pit his superhuman child against humans! It’s like racing people against horses!) The villain’s nefarious plot is to give everyone exceptional talents, thus rendering no one special; he uses his intelligence to produce gadgets and gizmos that affords him superpowers, more Batman than Superman (i.e. ubermensch), and for that, despite Pixar’s reliance on the technological advances of computer technology for its success, he’s the studio’s purest expression of villainy—someone who insists on having extraordinary talents he wasn’t born with. (In Pixar’s moral universe, book smarts is not a talent.)
A similar concept underlies Ratatouille. Though its motto sounds egalitarian—”Anyone Can Cook!”—it’s deceptive; the film’s idea is that greatness can come from anywhere, even from the rodent population, not that anyone can become great. The movie is generous enough to suggest that everyone can have a talent: the fraudulent chef reveals himself to be an adept rollerskating waiter, for example, but there’s a clear hierarchy: the human fraud’s girlfriend is a great sous-chef, the nasty critic becomes a reliable business partner, the mouse-chef’s friends and family are a great team, whether it’s chopping vegetables or binding health department employees. Some people are great artists who can make great things; the rest of us can support them.
This is also the driving idea behind Monsters University, a prequel to Monsters, Inc., both set in a parallel universe in which monsters power their society with the terrified screams of humans. In both, then, the society’s most valued members are the ones who scare kids the best and thus produce the most fuel. In making it to “MU” and enrolling in the scaring program, the strangely shaped Mike Wazowski, voiced by Billy Crystal, goes after achieving his childhood dream of being one of those respected citizens: he avoids a social life and studies instead, mastering the techniques and theories behind frightenings. In contrast, Sully, voiced by John Goodman, takes his innate talent, his lion’s roar and bear-like shape, for granted, pursuing partying at the expense of his academics.